French Open 2018: New courts, new challengers, same old Nadal

French Open 2018: New courts, new challengers, same old Nadal © Jed Court, AFP | Rafael Nadal‘s first-round match at Roland Garros was interrupted by rain on Monday.

Day two at Roland Garros saw former champion Stan Wawrinka tumble out, current champion Rafael Nadal dig deep, and a downpour end all play at a fast-changing Grand Slam venue that boasts several brand-new courts but still no roof.

A fixture of Roland-Garros, the panama hats have been out in force since the kicked off on Sunday under a blazing sun. But by early evening on day two, the first thunderstorms rolled in over Paris, ensuring spectators were once again left to rue the lack of a roof.

Nestled in between parks and the leafy 16th arrondissement of Paris, the French Open’s historic but claustrophobic home is playing catch up with the other three Grand Slam tournaments – Wimbledon and the US and Australian Opens – all of which boast spacious venues and retractable roofs.

Easily the smallest of the four, Roland Garros has been bogged down for years in legal wrangles with its wealthy neighbours, which repeatedly thwarted its plans to expand. When Paris lost out to London in its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, there was even talk of moving the French Open elsewhere.

But after a string of legal victories, Roland Garros has finally got building again, and a trio of new courts have been completed in time for this year’s tournament, increasing total capacity by more than 4,000 seats. Work on a fourth, semi-submerged arena, with a capacity of 5,000, is also well underway. Due in 2019, it will be named the Simonne-Mathieu stadium after a former women's champion and French resistance fighter of World War II.

The wait for cover from the rain, however, will go on for a further 12 months, with the centerpiece Philippe Chatrier court set to boast a retractable roof in time for the 2020 event. Provided the high-tech glass ceiling functions correctly, the French Open will then introduce night sessions the following year.

At 12.5 hectares, Roland Garros will remain the smallest of the four Slams. It will still only have one roofed court, while Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows have two and Melbourne has three. But as the French Tennis Federation put it, “It’s not about quantity, but rather quality.”

Nadal vs the rest

It is safe to assume 10-time winner will still be a favourite on the Paris dirt when the roof is finally completed. Whether in sunshine or in rain, Nadal seldom looks troubled out on Philippe Chatrier court. In fact he may have welcomed the storm that interrupted his match on Monday, as a valiant Simone Bolelli was putting up more resistance than expected.

A lucky loser, the veteran Italian was called in at the last minute after Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov pulled out with an injury. But he was unfazed by the challenge, pushing Nadal all the way in the first two sets and opening up a 3-0 lead in the third before rain stopped play.

Their tie will resume on Tuesday, with Nadal still the odds-on favourite to go all the way and add an 11th title to his record haul at Roland Garros. Even as his 32nd birthday approaches, the Spaniard is as dominant a figure on clay as anyone has ever been on any surface.

With Andy Murray still injured and Roger Federer sitting this one out, is the only other surviving member of the former “big four” here in Paris – and his form is still questionable after one of the most dramatic slumps in the history of the game.

The Serbian former world number one, who underwent surgery on his elbow after the Australian Open this year, looked frustrated and moody as he battled past Brazilian qualifier Rogerio Dutra Silva on Monday, winning 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

The only other player to have won a French Open in the past decade, Stanislas Wawrinka, was dumped out earlier in the day in a five-set thriller by Spain’s Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 5-7), in the first major upset of the men’s draw.

More importantly, Nadal's own record speaks for itself. He has only been beaten twice over 81 matches on the Paris clay. His overall record in best-of-five-set matches on clay (104-2) is even more formidable. Last year, he swept to his record 10th Roland Garros title without dropping a single set.

Underarm serve?

Such is Nadal’s dominance that Craig O'Shannessy, a strategy guru and tactical advisor to Djokovic, has thrown out the idea of an underarm serve in a (seemingly desperate) bid to unsettle the Spaniard.

"You need an agent of disruption,” O’Shannessy told REUTERS. “You need to do things that make him uncomfortable, make him think twice, get inside his head (…). Do something radical."

Pre-French Open matches suggest a new crop of rivals has been trying to do just that.

In Madrid this month, Nadal looked to be on a roll, winning his 50th consecutive set on clay, until Dominic Thiem suddenly put an end to the winning streak with a straight-sets quarter-final win. The 24-year-old Austrian made the most of the higher altitude and thinner air to take the ball earlier and dictate rallies, rushing his opponent.

Thiem later lost the final to Alexander Zverev, who used similar tactics when he took on Nadal in Rome two weeks later, pushing the Mallorcan to three sets. Like Thiem, the German youngster looked free of the fear factor that has long paralysed Nadal’s opponents on clay.

The German second seed got his title bid off to a perfect start on Sunday with a 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 drubbing of Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis, storming to victory in just 70 minutes. On paper, he’s now the biggest threat to Nadal. However, he’s never defeated the 16-time Grand Slam winner before, and the chances of him registering a first win on the Spaniard’s favourite ground seem very slim.

Thiem, on the other hand, already has three wins over Nadal under his belt, a feat matched only by Djokovic and Argentina’s Gaston Gaudio. The Austrian looked sharp during his opening match on Monday, brushing aside Belarusian qualifier Ilya Ivashka 6-2, 6-4, 6-1. The question is, can he outgun and outlast the “King of Clay” in a best-of-five-sets match, and at Roland Garros to boot?